Where the Language of Democracy Is a Cover

To choose its next leader, Hong Kong uses words such as election, campaign, and vote to present the facade of freedom.

A collage of a masked John Lee standing in front of yellow English and Chinese text against a red background
Lui Siu Wai / Xinhua / Getty; The Atlantic

On Friday afternoon, supporters of John Lee gathered for what his adviser described as a preelection rally, a final push in Lee’s campaign to secure victory in the election to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

Don’t let the vocabulary fool you. No members of the general public attended Lee’s event, a stage-managed flourish to a weeks-long show masquerading as a contest. He didn’t actually have to win them over; he needed only the support of just over 750 vetted Beijing loyalists in a city of some 7.5 million. In any event, he ran unopposed and today, the day of the “vote,” he will win.

Like many Hong Kong institutions that are being hollowed out to fit the needs of the city’s new political regime, a high importance has been placed on keeping up appearances surrounding the election. Though Hong Kong has never had full democracy and the selection for the chief executive, the city’s top job, has always been the realm of a chosen few, this year is even more restricted. Thus, Lee and the Hong Kong authorities have spent the past few weeks partaking in an elaborate charade to ensure that his elevation maintained a patina of legitimacy.

On most days, Lee, the former No. 2 official in the government, would meet with a variety of pro-Beijing interest groups and hand-selected city residents, with readouts and posed photos quickly uploaded to his social-media platforms. A few times a week, he would descend from his campaign office in Central Plaza, a high-rise awash in early-1990s gaudiness in the downtown Wan Chai neighborhood, via a gold-accented escalator into the building’s lobby, where a small gaggle of journalists would ask him questions and snap pictures.

During one recent briefing I attended, he was difficult to hear over the din in the marble lobby, where office workers went about their day, with only a few stopping to take note of Lee’s presence. A delivery driver still wearing his motorcycle helmet came down the escalator as Lee was speaking and continued tapping his phone, seemingly unaware of the future city leader. The government, meanwhile, has carried on as though it were preparing to hold a normal election, issuing releases and organizing press conferences, detailing its work readying to collect and tally what will be fewer than 1,500 ballots. The city’s anti-corruption watchdog is sending 80 monitors to watch the polls. Not to be outdone, police say they will deploy up to 7,000 officers to ensure that things run smoothly. At Friday’s rally, supporters got onstage in groups of three, taking turns to lavish Lee with praise while he sat in the audience looking on.

Over the course of the “campaign,” Lee’s interactions with the general public have been nearly nonexistent. Instead, one by one over the past few weeks, Hong Kong’s elite—aging tycoons, academics, and businesspeople—have pledged their support for Lee. Those most eager to curry favor with the soon-to-be leader hurried to his campaign headquarters early in the selection exercise, posing outside his office in front of a cerulean poster featuring the city skyline. Lee sometimes stood next to them, his face often contorted in a pained smile and his outstretched arm flashing a thumbs-up. He didn’t yet have a platform or any detailed policies. That didn’t matter. (Lee’s thin manifesto was released only nine days before the vote.) Lee’s cadence of speech is peculiar and plodding, and throughout the campaign, he was neither charismatic nor particularly enthusiastic about his anointed role. That didn’t matter either. Instead, when Lee spoke, he projected the confidence of an unprepared job applicant who’d fudged his résumé and unexpectedly landed an undeserved interview, constantly trotting out the line that he would be “results oriented.” That—you likely guessed—didn’t matter at all.

What did matter—the only thing that ever mattered—was that Lee had the backing of Beijing.

Keen to have a smooth and wholly uncompetitive election, Beijing’s officials in Hong Kong made it clear from the start that Lee was the only option. He’d previously headed the vetting committee for the city’s legislature, personally ensuring that all candidates, including those who are among the select few who can cast ballots this time around, were sufficiently loyal and “patriotic.” If elections are horse races, Lee’s is a dressage show of one—involving a single candidate obediently dancing a tightly choreographed routine in front of a panel of judges.

One of the only aspects of Lee’s selection process that has resembled a democracy has been the naked jockeying by those eager to score points and perhaps positions in his administration. Many of the people offering effusive praise to Lee were only a few weeks ago infuriated by the government’s inept handling of Hong Kong’s latest pandemic wave, which has left bodies piled in hospitals and frail, elderly patients lying outside them. Judy Chan, a lawmaker from the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, was highly critical of the Hong Kong government’s pandemic response. “I don’t think the government had any preparation for this,” she told me in late February, around the time when Hong Kong had the highest COVID-19 fatality rate in the world. Chan laughed when I asked her if she thought Chinese President Xi Jinping—Lee’s ultimate boss—was happy with the city’s actions. “Of course, not so pleased,” she said. Nevertheless, her party met with Lee last month and, after a short discussion, pledged its support.

Indeed, Lee’s ascendance to the post of chief executive has been such a foregone conclusion that it’s more interesting to ask why he would want the job at all. (There has been a lively debate online over what exactly to call his campaign and election, given the unusual circumstances.) Since Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, four people have held the post, and all four struggled immensely with the task of balancing the desires and needs of Hong Kongers with the demands of Beijing. The first stepped down after enormous protests. The next landed in jail after his term finished. The one that followed was deeply disliked, triggered even more protests, and was not allowed to run again, giving way to the current chief executive, Carrie Lam. Her stubbornness and egotism helped kick-start and prolong the massive prodemocracy protests of 2019. These set in motion many of the changes that have swept through Hong Kong, most notably Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national-security law in 2020. When Lam leaves office in a couple of months and officially hands the reins to Lee, Hong Kong will be drastically less free, less democratic, less open, and more like the mainland than when she began her term.

Lee, a former police officer, served as the secretary for security during the 2019 protests, overseeing the response from police that left the force’s reputation in tatters and fueled huge public anger. Lee was then promoted to chief secretary for administration, the city’s No. 2 position. His name began to surface earlier this year as a serious contender for chief executive, initially mentioned alongside a handful of others, including the financial secretary, Paul Chan; the former police commissioner Chris Tang; and the previous head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan. Lee’s security background at a time when Beijing feels threatened on multiple fronts, and his lack of personal connections to the city’s ultra-wealthy power brokers, appears to have made him desirable in Beijing’s eyes.

His campaign has attracted minimal interest from the public, and, perhaps as a result, he has managed to avoid making much real news at all. There are only a few banners with his face around the city. Some posters hanging in subway stations remind people—the majority of whom are not eligible to vote—that May 8 is “Chief Executive Election Polling Day.” Coverage of the first day of his campaign was largely pushed off the front pages by the arrest of a longtime journalist. Opposition figures who in the past may have questioned or prodded Lee are almost all in jail or have retreated from politics. The most attention he has garnered was when YouTube shut down his channel, citing concern over U.S. sanctions: Like Lam, Lee was sanctioned for his role in putting down the 2019 demonstrations and for the actions that followed.

A former pro-Beijing lawmaker involved in past chief-executive elections told me that he saw the current selection process as a return to Hong Kong’s colonial rule, a period during which a governor was appointed from London with no say from the local population. “In those days, they just sent a governor over, and nowadays they just have one candidate, and that is the preferred candidate of Beijing,” he told me, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the current political climate. Hong Kong’s reengineered legislature, now devoid of opposition, would work to support Lee, because lawmakers know that he speaks directly for Beijing. “I would actually call this,” he said, “simply an appointment system.”